THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – WESTERN BULLDOGS 2020 POST-COVID PREVIEW

 

At the risk of starting this article off on the wrong foot, I received a fair amount of flak after our Western Bulldogs season preview. Of all the teams I wrote about – and I wrote about every single one of them – it was the Bulldog fans who sent me messages complaining about a bias against their team.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’re full of shit”

“You will eat those words”

Yeah, maybe I might. But in Round One, the fears I had for the Bullies came to fruition when they were belted around the park by the Magpies, with stars neglecting to shine, and players thrust into roles of responsibility who were not up to the task.

Whilst I felt somewhat justified in my assessment of the Dogs to that point, it is only one game, and there is plenty of time to improve as we head into the remainder of a season unlike any other in my memory. The Dogs will need to be better than what we saw to open the season, and to end 2019. If they can’t be more bite than bark, I believe teams will work them out pretty quickly, if they haven’t already.

Anyway, let’s get on with it.

 

WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM ROUND ONE?

If you’re a Bulldogs fan, you’d be hoping that this performance was an aberration. If this was the kind of effort the Dogs are going to produce for the remainder of the year, I reckon their supporters would have been leading the charge for the season to be called off.

They were whacked. No ifs, buts, or maybes about it – they were pantsed.

Grundy molested Tim English in the ruck so badly in the first half that I am surprised he wasn’t brought up on some kind of charges. Where did the nasty Collingwood man touch you, Tim?

Taylor Adams took to his task of limiting Marcus Bontempelli with gusto, and the new Bulldog captain didn’t give a yelp in response. Jack Macrae hardly fired a shot – his 22 touches matching his lowest output from 2019, and Josh Dunkley finished with 18 disposals – the last time he wound up in the teens for disposals, he was playing as a forward.

Speaking of forwards, the Dogs’ young star, Aaron Naughton was not at all helped by the midfield’s insistence on kicking the ball long to half forward, where Jeremy Howe ate up intercept possessions like they were Bunnings sausages… seriously, I could eat ten of them, easily. And when they finally did manage to bypass Howe, Jordan Roughead made the evening worse for Naughton by blanketing him in every contest.

Before I get to the few positives of the night, a quick question – with the game out of reach and your young star forward unable to influence the contest in any way, why not move him up the ground to get his hands on the footy a little and bring him into the game? On re-watch, it is astounding that Luke Beveridge didn’t pull the trigger on moving Naughton to a position where his athleticism could have made a difference. He was left to flounder in a dysfunctional forward set up for way too long.

Positives?

Bailey Smith was one of the few Bullies that looked like he gave a shit. It’s his nature – you can tell he is up for the fight, even when those around him put their cue in the rack. Alex Keath looked both good individually, but incredibly frustrated at the way his new team was operating. And if I was going to pick a third player, I’d throw Matt Suckling into the mix as well.

But other than those three, it was slim pickings for the Dogs. With a point to prove going into Round One, they failed to make it, and if anything, reinforced the perception that they had a soft underbelly. Tim English started to get the footy once the game was decided, but his second half is the epitome of stat-padding. The game was over in the first half, and at that stage, he couldn’t buy a touch.

It was a huge fail across the board for the Dogs in Round One. There is no other way to look at it.

Here’s the full recap of that game.

The Good, Bad And Ugly – Collingwood V Western Bulldogs

 

THE GOOD

 

THIS IS THE BONT WE’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR

I wasn’t a fan of Marcus Bontempelli’s 2018 season. There were points where I felt he looked out of sorts and almost as though he was going through the motions as his team floundered for the second-straight year. Part of me wondered whether his form was symptomatic of the team, or vice versa.

I got my answer in 2019, when Bont slipped into high gear and started to make good on the potential he showed in 2016, and became the player he’s been threatening to be for a while now. The Bulldogs followed suit. Bont finally became an undoubted superstar and the Dogs were in form again.

There are others who get more of the ball, and sure they have their fans in AFL circles, but when Marcus Bontempelli grabs the ball at a stoppage and runs into the forward half, there are few better sights in the game. The comparisons between him and Patrick Cripps have been flying around for ages on social media. I’ve often read articles to see if anyone made convincing arguments either way, and it’s made me smile a bit here and there. They’re very different players that just happened to be chosen in the same draft. Both great, both dominant, and both capable of swinging a game in their team’s favour.

And this is exactly what we saw in 2019.

Their two meetings last year were polar opposites. Cripps destroyed an unaccountable Bont in their first meeting, but in their second, Bont burst from the gates like a man with a point to prove. Make no mistake – it was the early efforts of Bontempelli that gave the Dogs the lead that won the game. The Blues may have come back hard, but Bont ensured the Dogs were in a position to win long before the Carlton revival occurred.

So, after winning the Coaches Association Player of the Year Award in 2019, what is the next logical step for the three-time Charlie Sutton Medallist? Many would think the Brownlow would be something he would be right in contention for, particularly if the Dogs improve on their 2019 result and amass a few more wins, but I’d like something more… meaty.

What I would like to see Bont take a finals game and tear it to shreds. I’d like to see him make a stand in the middle, tear the ball out of there to give his forwards a series of clear one-on-one chances, and then drift forward later in the game, himself to slam a couple home.

Reputations are made in September, and whilst Bont already has a premiership medallion to prove he more than belongs, being the best player on the best team is something that only the great ones ever achieve – it is all in front of him this season.

He started poorly, and the challenge is now squarely at his feet. New captain, new season… we need to see the absolute best from Bont in order for the pressure on the others in the midfield to be alleviated.

If he doesn’t fire, the Dogs will fail.

 

THE MIDFEILD SUPPORTING CAST

There was another Bulldog on the podium as the All-Australian team was named last September, and that honour has never been as richly deserved as when Jack Macrae was named in the team.

Macrae has been an unstoppable ball-winning machine for the Dogs over the last couple of seasons, capable of tearing a team to shreds on the outside, or winning his own ball where necessary. That he has a running mate like Bontempelli means that Macrae will usually get a relatively free run at the footy, as most of the defensive attention goes to his new Captain, however it might be time for teams to rethink that strategy.

You see, it is not just Bont that hurts, and for that matter it is not just Macrae that hurts, either. 2019 saw the emergence of the third member of this elite midfield trio, that pound-for-pound, would have to be the best in the game right now.

After six games masquerading as a forward, Josh Dunkley was unleashed into the midfield, with devastating results. Whilst Macrae is the finesse, and Bontempelli is the heart of the team, Josh Dunkley is the Junkyard Dog. The Junkyard Bulldog, perhaps? He will get down and dirty, tackle you until your insides burst, and then win his own footy as well.

Get these numbers – once Dunkley made his way into the midfield, he averaged 30.16 touches, 6.27 tackles and 6.11 clearances per game. To put it in perspective, on those numbers he would have been ninth in the league in disposals, 13th in clearances and 13th in tackles (amazingly, he was 13th in tackles anyway, so there you go). They’re the sort of numbers that the best midfielder on a team garners.

Dunkley would be considered by most as the third mid on this team. It’s crazy.

Two of the Western Bulldogs mids made the All-Australian team in 2019. The last time three mids on the same team made the AA team was in 2016, when Kennedy, Parker and Hannebery all made it from Sydney.

Could three Dogs make the team this season? Round One demonstrated to other teams how to effectively combat this three-headed monster. If they’re going to give season this a shake, they need to learn how to not only get the footy, themselves, but how to create pathways for each other, and help each other out. Having all three down on the one day is borderline unforgivable.

 

THE BEST YOUNG FORWARD IN THE BUSINESS

Let’s put the first outing of the season aside for a moment, shall we? I am pretty sure I can sense Dogs supporters all nodding at the thought. It was horrible, and Aaron Naughton was underdone going in. As such, he was given a bath.

Not that it was his fault – the supply was non-existent, but you could be forgiven for thinking he may not be all he has been cracked up to be if you’re narrow-minded and put a lot of stock in one game.

Forwards take a long time to mature – we’ve all heard that, right? The coaches preach patience whilst the media salivate over the next big thing and the possibilities of bags of goals.

And then along comes a kid who looks like a pretty good defender in the making, until the coach decides he might be a bit of alright if he throws him up forward.

Then, as a teenager, he goes about his business and comes within one grab of toppling the contested mark record, held by a player many view as the greatest of the modern era, Wayne Carey. But that’s where we find Aaron Naughton as we prepare to move forward with the 2020 season, already displaying and refining the kind of marking prowess that other young key forwards are trying to locate.

His nine contested marks against the much-celebrated Richmond defence were an ominous sign of what is on the horizon. Naughton isn’t waiting for the game to come to him – he is grabbing it by the throat and giving it an almighty shake. He has played just one game in his 20s, yet sat second to only Tom Lynch in contested grabs last season.

He did this without a legitimate secondary marking target inside 50, as the Dogs looked to him as their bail-out option every time they needed one.

It’s hard to believe that Josh Schache averaged more goals per game than Naughton in 2019. Naughton had just 1.39 to Schache’s 1.71, but there is no question as to which player is more valuable to the team right now.

If we were to grab a bunch of list managers and ask them which player they would pick up right now to build around, I wonder how many would choose the 20-year old Naughton. Many would probably grab a midfielder. Not me. Naughton would be my choice – key forwards who are ready to deliver before getting off their P-Plates don’t grow on trees. Aaron Naughton not only delivered in 2019, he delivered more than the Dogs had a right to expect.

Let’s assume he improves again – and why wouldn’t he improve again? He’s now had the time to get himself right after racing the clock to be ready for Round One. What would be the ceiling for him in 2020? He averaged 2.3 contested grabs last season. Matt Taberner was leading the league until he was injured at 2.7 – there’s your Naughton benchmark for 2020. For goals, you’d want him to have a slight gain at least – up from 1.39 goals to maybe end up sitting at 1.80-2.00 per game.

If he accomplishes those targets, he will be knocking on the door of the AA team in short order.

I have to admit, when Luke Beveridge started playing Naughton up forward, I thought he may have been flirting with the form of the youngster. Naughton had started to look right at home as a defender in his first season, but as we neared the end of 2018, there he was popping into the forward 50. I suppose the ends justify the means, and if you read my stuff on here, you know I am happy to say I’m wrong. I was dead wrong on Naughton.

There are several good young contested marking players coming through right now. Harry McKay at Carlton and Mitchell Lewis at Hawthorn are two that are nipping at the heels of Naughton, but from what I saw in 2019, they have a way to go yet. He is now the standard by which young marking forwards are set.

And he is only going to get better.

 

THE NEW RECRUITS

I’ll touch on the ruck situation and why I thought the Dogs should have been targeting a secondary ruck below, but in landing both Josh Bruce and Alex Keath, you’d have to declare this trade period a success for the boys from Whitten Oval.

Whilst I obviously rate Aaron Naughton incredibly highly, the addition of Josh Bruce to an already potent forward line is a ripping move by the Dogs. Bruce was sixth in the league in contested marks in 2019, and when you consider that Naughton was  second, you start to get a picture of what the pair can do for each other up forward.

Bruce really established himself as powerhouse inside 50, taking seven contested grabs on two occasions last season, one of which coincided with a six-goal haul against the Kangaroos.

At the other end, Alex Keath was having his name thrown around as a possible All-Australian candidate before injury sent him to the sidelines. Having him back there with Easton Wood, Hayden Crozier and Jackson Trengove fortifies a pretty strong defensive six for the Dogs, with Keath most likely to be the designated interceptor – a role he was quite adept in with the Crows.

It was against the Dogs last season that Keath really strutted his stuff, finishing with 21possessions and 14 marks as the Crows took home the four points. Now, with a weapon like Keath patrolling his own defensive 50, Luke Beveridge would have a smile from ear to ear.

Are these two inclusions enough to propel the Dogs deeper into the finals? Neither has experienced any September action to this point in their careers, and they appear to have joined a team on the upswing.

Keath was good in the first outing, whilst Bruce was subdued as much by his own team’s inept forays forward as by the Collingwood defence. Whilst you only get one chance to make a good first impression in new colours, we will see much better from Bruce as the season unfolds.

 

OPTIONS, OPTIONS, OPTIONS

I touched on Josh Bruce and Aaron Naughton above, and I feel as though with Bruce’s inclusion, the Dogs possess one of the most diverse forward set ups in the game.

Bruce and Naughton will hit contests hard, but it is the other sneaky (underrated talent) forwards that have the capacity to bring the pain even when the  big blokes aren’t clunking them.

Sam Lloyd was an inspired pick up by the Dogs in 2019, so much so that he ended up leading their goal kicking totals for the season. Lloyd was starved for opportunity at Richmond and certainly made good on his them with the Dogs.

But it doesn’t end there.

Tory Dickson and Josh Schache both snagged 24 goals for the year and Bailey Dale bobbed up late in the season to provide yet another reliable avenue to goal. From Rounds 18-23, Dale kicked 20 goals, including two bags of five as he seemed to continuously get into the right spots at the right time. Whether he can do it over the course of a full season, of course, remains the challenge, but to average over three goals per game in a six-game stretch is nothing to sneeze at.

Waiting in the winds is Billy Gowers, who led the team in goals in 2018 but couldn’t find his way into the side for more than ten games in 2019. Whilst I am sure Gowers isn’t happy about it, it is a great sign for the Dogs to have someone like him ready to swoop on an opportunity should it become available.

 

THE STEALTH BOMBER

The Dogs are blessed with high-possessions winners and a midfield that can cut teams to ribbons, but one man that continually gets left out of the equation (as I did above) is Lachie Hunter.

So, given there is no such thing as word limits at The Mongrel, why not give the bloke his own section?

I’m not going to harp on about his idiotic off-season mistake. My hope with that is that he learns a valuable lesson and counts his blessings that nobody got hurt. Righto, that’ll do on that topic.

After a blistering 2018 placed him firmly in the spotlight, averaging over 29 touches per game, Hunter slipped back to play purely an outside game in 2019, with his contested touches dropping to six per game whilst his uncontested possessions remained over 20 per game. Used as an attacking weapon on the wing, Hunter averages a career-high 4.48 inside 50s per game and ran at an impressive 78% efficiency. Some Dogs fans lament that his kicking can be a little awry, but I reckon they’re seeing one of two missed targets per game and focusing on them. On the whole, Hunter’s delivery is above average.

The Dogs have plenty of players who hurt by foot. Hunter, Suckling, Daniel, Johannisen – it’s an embarrassment of riches, really. You simply cannot cover them all. When the big midfield trio fires, it opens the door for the likes of Hunter to find the footy in open spaces without undue attention.

When the Dogs can manufacture space for Hunter to work in, it often spells doom for the opposition. The Dogs were 6-2 when Hunter had 30+ disposals in 2019. If they can get him loose, everyone feeds.

Of course, we will have to wait until July to see Hunter, after the club whacked him with a four-game suspension, but once the fourth musketeer joins his fellow midfielders, expect the Dogs to get an immediate lift.

 

THE BAD

 

THE LITTLE MAN IN DEFENCE

And here’s where the conjecture started. See, I reckon a few people get defensive about Caleb Daniel because he’s a little fella. It’s like the way my missus gets a little bit defensive when people have a crack at me because I am a bit slo… err, because she loves me a lot.

I don’t dislike Daniel – to state I do is nuts. Did you state it? Well, you’re nuts. I like his skills by foot, and think he is a valuable contributor to the Dogs, but at one point last season I heard people floating Caleb Daniel’s name as a potential All-Australian half back. I actually couldn’t believe my ears (or if I read it, it might have been my eyes I doubted). Whilst Daniel is a wonderful ball user, and excellent decision-maker, he is a complete liability in defence. He was being abused one-on-one in contests in the back half, so much so that teams were starting to isolate him whenever they could. And it was paying dividends

How many times early in the season did we see Daniel isolated with an opponent either at half forward or inside 50? It is a mismatch waiting to happen, and I was a little shocked that Luke Beveridge allowed it to happen so often. Was he bargaining that Daniel hurt so much when he had the footy in his hands that losing a contest or three in the air was worth the price? It seemed that way.

With Daniel at half back, the Dogs were 7-10. I am sure I don’t need to remind anyone that this team made the finals, so I will leave it to all the math magicians out there to calculate their record without him in the team.

I’m not saying there is no place for Daniel in the team – far from it. I just don’t want to see him being exploited so easily by an intelligent forward and an intelligent opposition coach. So, where to play him to maximise his strengths and limit his weakness?

High half forward or the wing seem like genuine options for Daniel. As I stated above, his ball use is excellent, and I would like to see him with more inside 50s than rebound 50s. In 2019, he averaged 5.94 rebound 50s to just 2.12 inside 50s. With Matt Suckling highly capable of playing that sweeping role across half back, could Daniel be the player that honours the leads of Naughton and Bruce in 2020?

I’d much prefer him in that role than looking around at his teammates wondering how he got caught in yet another one-on-one marking contest in defence.

 

TIME TO GROW UP… NOW!

Right, so I am going to leave this as is, and italicise it, because anyone can write this stuff after the fact. This was written before the season.

I’ve written a bit about Tim English over the off-season, and there is a very good reason for it. His development could be the key to the Dogs taking the next step. Until this point, he has been bullied by mature rucks, and as he heads into year four of his AFL career, the Western Bulldogs will rely on him more than they ever have.

The Dogs didn’t get a back-up ruck in the off-season. I thought they’d really go after Paddy Ryder to assist English when competing against the monsters of the competition, but either they failed miserably, or they have so much faith in the development of English that they did not deem an experienced body necessary.

It is a very risky strategy.

Last season, the Bulldogs won the hit out count once.

Just once.

It is testament to the ability of the Dogs’ midfield that they were able to win the total clearances on 13 occasions. Imagine what they could do if English actually started getting his hand to the footy first? The Dogs were easily the worst ruck team in the competition in 2019, lagging behind a Sydney team that relied on Callum Sinclair. The same Callum Sinclair that had 44 hit outs against the Dogs in Round One.

Here’s another stat for you. 50 hit outs in a game is relatively rare for all but the best rucks in the game. Opposed to English, players did it five times in 2019. This cannot continue.

In Round One the Dogs face Collingwood, with Brodie Grundy hungrily eyeing an opponent he averaged 23.5 disposals and 54 hit outs against. In this game, Tim English has to stand up. He was bullied by Grundy last season in a pair of efforts that resulted in six Brownlow votes.

Can English hurt Grundy on the rebound? Can he drift forward and kick a couple of goals to even the ledger? Can he put his knee into Grundy’s chest and let him know that the boy Grundy pushed around is no more, and in his place stands a mature AFL ruckman?

We get our answer in Round One.

So… what was our answer?

I wrote toward the start of this article that Grundy molested English. That is the right word. He belittled him, abused him, and toyed with him.

I once read about NBA Legend, Wilt Chamberlain playing against a rookie by the name of Walt Bellamy, a man who went on to be an NBA Hall of Fame player in his own right. So, the first time they played, every time Bellamy took a shot in the first half, Wilt blocked it. He’d just use his superior strength and agility to send the shot back from whenst it came. Bellamy walked into the locker room a beaten man. He’d attempted nine shots. All of them were blocked by Chamberlain.

As the second half started, Wilt wandered over to Bellamy and stated “Okay, Walter, now you can play.”

Grundy played Chamberlain to English’s Bellamy in this game, completing shutting him down in the first half to the point the Dogs’ big man had no possessions in the first half. The game was over and the job was done. Grundy destroyed English yet again, and the Dogs had neglected to recruit a Plan B.

“Okay, Timothy, you can play now.”

 

THE UGLY

 

A SOFT UNDERBELLY?

This might be a bit hard to read for Dogs supporters, but it’s the truth, and you know it.

GWS beat you up in the Elimination Final. They took a team that absolute humiliated them two games earlier and they rubbed their nose in it with a brand of football that was simply too tough for the Dogs on the day. Yes, there was a furore over Toby Greene’s treatment of Bont, and yes I suppose Dogs fans had every right to be upset about it, but my question is – where was the response from the players?

I heard a couple of players state in the media that they wish they knew their captain was being worked over by the Giants. What game were they part of? How did they miss it? Were they not listening at half time and three quarter time? Why didn’t they respond then instead of lamenting it after the fact?

There is a bit of chatter that the Giants exposed the Dogs a little in that Elimination Final. A few people have mentioned to me that they believe the Dogs were a bit soft. That has to sting a little, right?

Granted, the Dogs were missing Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis; two who seem the type to fly the flag, but if the entire team is going to rely on just those two to even things up, they had better reassess the strategy.

We were supposed to see a more aggressive Western Bulldogs to open the season. We were supposed to see a team with a point to prove dispel the notion that they had a soft underbelly. We were supposed to the Dogs come out and play the kind of football that would leave no doubt as to their intentions in 2020.

But we saw the same team that was so soundly handled by the Giants. We saw no fight, no aggression… and we saw a similar result.

The Dogs managed just 34 points in Round One against a Collingwood team that appeared to outmuscle and outwork them.

Was this a wakeup call? Was the wakeup call last September not enough? Did they snooze the alarm in Round One?

The Western Bulldogs need to make an early statement in this season reboot. It is clear that teams see them as a highly gifted team that doesn’t like to be roughed up. There is only one way to deal with that kind of tag.

Let the fireworks begin.

 

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